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Head of Engineering vs. CTO: Everything You Need to Know

Learn the difference between the head of Engineering vs. the CTO while learning what it takes to become an engineering leader.

By Hannah Ross  •   October 24, 2022  •   6 min read

Learning the difference between a head of Engineering and a chief technology officer (CTO) is imperative when it comes time to explore hiring options for your organization. Before you can make an informed decision, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of each option while taking your organizational goals and aspirations into consideration. In addition, it’s important to understand the roles and responsibilities of each position before making a final decision. 

In this article, we’ll dive into the roles and responsibilities of both positions and let you know what to look for when determining which hire to make. We’ll cover everything you need to know about the difference between the head of Engineering vs. the CTO as well as what it takes to become an engineering leader. 

What is the head of engineering? 

In addition to leading engineering departments and coordinating projects, head engineers manage a variety of responsibilities, including strategy and development, task management, people management, budgeting and financial planning, relationship management, and self-management and personal development. 

A head engineer will be responsible for overseeing and managing multiple projects simultaneously. As a result, they need to be excellent at delegating tasks, setting project goals and deliverables, managing timelines, and overseeing the entire engineering team’s progress. 

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Head of engineering responsibilities

1Support the CTO

Senior engineers (also known as head engineers) are often responsible for working in tandem with chief technology officers to combine their strengths and stay on top of industry trends. While the CTO is responsible for overseeing the organization’s technological advancements as a whole, the head of Engineering is instead responsible for the elements that lie within the engineering team. Despite their niche, senior engineers need to continuously prioritize learning and hone in on emerging technologies, which is why it’s important for them to support and collaborate with the CTO. 

2Lead the development team

In addition to shipping products, overseeing projects, managing budgets, and planning on behalf of the engineering department, the head of Engineering will also be responsible for people management, or more specifically, leading the development team. As a people manager, the head of engineering acts as a constant source of inspiration while ensuring all engineering employees are working cohesively and effectively. 

3Collaborate across departments

As the head of Engineering, this individual will be responsible for being the liaison amongst all other departments. Senior engineers are not only responsible for communicating amongst their respective teams, but they must also convey the interworking of their respective departments to the organization at large. They need to be able to effectively communicate what the engineering team is working on to other departments to streamline cross-functional collaboration.

What is a chief technology officer? 

Similar to the head of Engineering, the CTO has a great deal of responsibility. The CTO holds an executive-level position and focuses heavily on the technology within the organization. These executives oversee the entire information technology department and are responsible for integrating information technology requirements into the organization in an attempt to streamline processes and guide IT professionals toward organizational goals. 

CTO responsibilities 

1Be the technical lead

The CTO is solely responsible for leading all technological endeavors and thus must examine both short- and long-term needs as they relate to technology. Being a technical lead means developing, implementing, managing, maintaining, and evaluating the organization’s technology resources. 

2Be the chief innovator

Innovation is crucial to every CTO’s role; development and innovation are at the core of everything they do. In addition to regular technological maintenance, they must also always be on the lookout for new and innovative ways to make technological improvements within the organization. Whether they’re searching for a creative way to improve upon an existing project or a new tool that streamlines efficiency, CTOs need to always be on the lookout for ways to innovate on current practices within the organization. 

3Oversee the technology maintenance

While CTOs are largely responsible for innovating and adopting new technologies, they also need to prioritize continuous maintenance. For everything to run smoothly, it’s important that regular maintenance be top of mind. Conducting frequent tests and checking that everything is running in tip-top shape will ensure nothing goes awry when it comes time to lean on the technology. Failing to conduct regular maintenance may lead to a whole host of problems, including production interruptions, missed project deadlines, or broken systems. 

4Be the chief product developer 

CTOs wear many hats, with one of the most important being product development. Many responsibilities that fall within the job description of a CTO work in tandem to steer product development. Everything a CTO does stems from their desire and duty to develop cutting-edge products that innovate on previous iterations. 

Tips for becoming an engineering leader 

1Get an engineering mentor

The transition from engineer to engineering leader is no easy feat, so seeking mentorship is a must. While you may be an excellent engineer, you may not have prior management experience. Seeking guidance from an experienced engineering leader who can act as your engineering mentor is an excellent way to gain expert insights that you can use as a framework for your new role. Unfortunately, there’s very rarely a playbook or step-by-step guide that helps engineers transition into a management role, which is why it’s best to learn from those who know what it’s like to walk in your shoes.

2Earn a degree

While possessing a degree is becoming less prevalent in the tech space, engineering is one field where having a degree is a must. Earning an engineering degree from an accredited postsecondary institution will ensure you have the tools necessary to build a solid foundation for your career in engineering. While industry experience is a must, it’s equally as important to get an education that teaches you the core fundamentals of engineering. 

A solid engineering institution will teach students how to design and conduct experiments, how to solve problems, the importance of strong communication, and the ethical responsibility that comes with being an engineer. While earning a degree may seem like a costly or lengthy commitment upfront, doing so is necessary to become an engineering leader. 

3Perfect your entrepreneurial skills

Effective problem-solving skills are found amongst engineers and business owners alike because both ventures require key stakeholders to think on their feet and frequently make logic-based decisions. Many skills among entrepreneurs can be transferable to engineers and vice versa. If you possess entrepreneurial skills like leadership, devotion, drive, and risk management, you’ll be much more likely to succeed as an engineering leader. 

Which should you hire? 

When determining whether you should hire a head of Engineering or a CTO, it’s important to consider your organizational goals. Not only do you want to make sure that you’re making a hire that helps bring the organization to the next level, but you also want to make sure that the hire’s skill set and offerings complement the employees and systems that currently exist within your organization. 

It’s also important to remember that a head of Engineering will work within a niche while a CTO will instead have an overarching understanding of what is occurring technology-wise. If you’re looking for someone to spearhead engineering and aren’t imminently concerned about the organization’s technological health from a holistic approach, you may want to move forward with a CTO. Ultimately, your decision should stem from your unique needs; however, it’s important to remember that a head of Engineering and a CTO can work in tandem to yield favorable results. 

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Parting words

In conclusion, the key to making an informed decision is having all the necessary information at your fingertips. After you’ve explored the roles and responsibilities of both the head of Engineering and the CTO, you’ll be able to move forward and make an informed decision that suits your organization.

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